NHTSA Proposes Autonomous Vehicle Rules

In a “historic first step,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority (NHTSA) proposed autonomous vehicle (AV) rules, which adjust the standard vehicle rules of regular human-driven vehicles. These changes are meant to allow the implementation and use of fully autonomous vehicles.

The changes remove some rules related to passenger safety if the AVs carry goods, such as groceries, but not people. The new rules also focus on required protections when there are no steering wheels or steering columns, in addition to airbags. The new rules will also clarify the term “driver” for each time the term is mentioned, whether it refers to a person or an AV driving system. The adjustments give AV developers most of the changes they said they needed to implement completely autonomous vehicles in the United States.

“With more than 90 percent of serious crashes caused by driver error, it’s vital that we remove unnecessary barriers to technology that could help save lives,” Acting Administrator James Owens said. “We do not want regulations enacted long before the development of automated technologies to present an unintended and unnecessary barrier against innovation and improved highway safety.”  

The proposal aims to adjust safety requirements for vehicles with automated driving systems without traditional manual controls by tweaking the requirements and testing procedures to reconcile the lack of manual controls. For example, NHTSA “proposes applying frontal passenger protection requirements to the traditional driver seating position when a steering wheel is not present and clarifies the applicability of some occupant protection standards to vehicles with no occupant compartment, such as occupant-less delivery vehicles.” The proposal does not change current occupant protection measures for traditional manually controlled vehicles.

NHTSA has previously been criticized for its hands-off approach and lack of guidance and authority. After a deadly 2018 self-driving Uber crash the National Transportation Safety Board has called on NHTSA to actively monitor and regulate AV testing on public roads. In 2016 the Department of Transportation released guidelines for developing self-driving technology, which have been updated three times. The DOT did not create rules for testing AVs, which has been left to the states, creating many different approaches. This proposal will create a unified national standard.

The proposed rules and adjustments will have two months of public comment before they are finalized. NHTSA stated that the agency is looking at other changes to safety standards, such as allowing seats in AVs to face each other or to recline flat. NHTSA states that it expects vehicles that do not fit these standards to continue to request exemptions. NHTSA granted a recent exemption to Nuro, an AV food delivery company.